“War of the Worlds”: The Election Edition

View from a London bus, 2005


Teaching undergraduate English in the Bronx while researching my dissertation on old-time radio, I found it difficult if necessary to relate nightly study to daytime work in the classroom.  I did not want to be one of those educators who think of their ‘job’ as an educator as being at odds with—or in the way of—an academic careers, success in which is largely dependent on self-promotional efforts rather than years of service.  Reluctant instructors tend to become resentful of their charge, a feeling that is hardly conducive to the far from mutually exclusive activities of teaching and learning.  Writing this journal has been a way of vindicating my approach, of coming to terms with my inability to squeeze the most out of the degree I earned.  broadcastellan is not a series of unheard lectures, but a record of my enthusiasms.

Now, where was I going with this? Ah, yes.  “The War of the Worlds,” the infamous “Panic Broadcast” that was first heard on this day, 30 October, in 1938. The Mercury Theater’s iconic dramatization of Wells’s futuristic parable and the resulting Hullabaloo (also the title of a 1940 musical comedy inspired by the event) provided me with a rare opportunity to forge a connection between classroom and study.  “The War” was the first recording of a radio play I shared with my students, whose listening experience was followed by the inevitable question whether such a performance could still hornswoggle us today.

Being that one of my enthusiasm is American radio drama, I have already discussed the Mercury Theater production and its rival broadcast on previous occasions. Tonight, though, “The War of the Worlds” comes to a mind that is about as uneasy as the minds of those tuning in back then.

Not surprisingly, most of my students argued that we are too sophisticated nowadays to fall for such claptrap.  There is more access to alternative media, more awareness of what is going on around the world.  However comforting it might be to think so, I have never permitted myself to share this view.  I do not conceive of the past as being inferior to the present by virtue of some supposedly natural progression.  Sure, you might snicker at preposterous styles and passing fads.  You might say, in hindsight, that certain political decisions were wrong and that those living in the past should have seen things coming. In short, there are any number of ways to demonstrate your ostensible superiority to folks back then.  Doing so, however, you should have the honesty to admit that your argument is designed to make yourself feel better about the uncertainties and anxieties of the present.

I do not hold with those who look at past generations as an older, hence inferior, model of themselves.  I reject the notion that there has ever been what is frequently referred to as “innocent” times.  Retrospection breeds contempt.  Too often, it is an act of distancing yourself from events that the present, if properly inspected, proves to be not altogether beyond the possibility of recurrence.

So, could something akin to the headlines-making broadcast be restaged tonight and elicit a similar response, a response frequently attributed to the threat of war that was about to shatter hopes of stability, peace, and prosperity? Are we not on edge enough now to have reached the point of sustainable gullibility? Or are cynicism and apathy an adequate shield against deception? Have not many of us lived a myth constructed by those who benefit from our desire to believe in something, be it a falsehood about terror and the war on it, be it the promise of economic progress to which every aspect of our existence is made subordinate? The times, it seems, are ripe for a shake-up.

One reader of the so-called panic broadcast, Peter Lowentrout, suggests that listener belief in an attack from Mars was rooted in a “loss of spirit,” the 1920s and 1930s having been “decades in which the influence of secularization peaked in our general and elite cultures.” Are we more eager to believe in a hoax if we are incapable of or reluctant to believe in anything else? Or is a return to faith a prerequisite for a susceptibility to apocalyptic visions?

In a way, the “panic” is itself an historical construct; its extent has been exaggerated to permit us that look of superiority we tend to cast on the past.  Yet what about the present fear change and its mongers, those who look upon of the presidential candidates as a false Messiah and claim him to be alien to the economic needs of an ailing nation, if not downright hostile to those intent on clinging to a status quo that hardly seems worth maintaining? What about those who think of ecological crises as a matter of fate or charlatanry rather than challenge and opportunity; and who, by claiming it to be either inevitable or false, go on living as if their individual conduct had no influence on the future of this planet? What about those who are disillusioned by the stock market, yet feel threatened by concepts of alternative living that involve something other than the amassing of greenbacks?

Orson Welles’s introductory remarks, at least, are readily applied to our present condition:

With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about there little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space.

At present, I find it difficult to think of anything other than the US election, which is what reminded me of the challenge I faced in the classroom, the challenge I am facing when keeping a journal that attempts to keep up with the out-of-date? To find relevance in the past and to relate it to the uncertainties that constitute my present, that is the challenge.  While I have no official say in the matter, I shall have certainty next Wednesday.  On that day, I may even have renewed confidence in the democratic West; but certain and confident is not who I am tonight . . .

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